Bellster, Slashdot, Hotfoon
(Sponsor: Lok Technology)
Jeff Pulver's Bellster got Slashdotted on Monday (and so, indirectly, did IPInferno). The result of that is lots of attention to the idea by the right people. "Right" because the /. community is one that tries things and pounds on them and finds out what works and what doesn't. Oh, yeah: And shoots its mouth off a lot. The response to Bellster: A mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism.
People like the idea because it's intrinsically cool and offers a new route for connecting; people are sometimes dubious mostly because of the privacy issue and questions about control (how do you keep people from abusing the service by costly or even illegal calls) and price (the service is "free," not free -- everyone who furnishes a node must still pay for their own phone service and hope that the payback they get in "free" Bellster calls balances out their expense). There are also questions, acknowledged on the Bellster site, about whether furnishing your phone line as a route for third-party calling is legal in all cases. (The doubts aside, several of the /. posters said they were already up and running on Bellster, and Jeff reports that the number of nodes keeps growing and growing.)
The other interesting result of the Slashdot folks poring over the Bellster idea is the occasional mention of similar projects. One I find intriguing -- and which bears some superficial similarities to Bellster and SkypeOut-- is Hotfoon. It's a commercial service based in Sweden, run by a company called PacketCell Networks Svenska AB. Callers use a Windows-based softphone to place calls to regular phone numbers. The calls move over the Net to nodes run by "operators" who have signed up to route calls over their private phone accounts (landline or cell) using Hotfoon's proprietary software and a Net-connected computer. The charge is generally 10 cents a minute. Coverage is spotty: All of the U.S., apparently, and little slices of Canada, with a big swath of the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia thrown in.
From that coverage pattern, I'm guessing that it's getting heavy use from Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi expats working in the Gulf region. Maybe that price/payment proposition makes sense in those markets, where 10 cents a minute is a much better deal than you can get with other PC-to-phone options (including SkypeOut). It would seem like a tough go in better-served markets, though.